A year from its "sustainable" World Cup, Qatar has unveiled a stadium meant to be dismantled afterward and reassembled elsewhere. It's good PR, a top environmentalist told DW, but far from what the country needs.
Stadium 974 built from recycled containers, will be rebuilt abroad after the 2022 World Cup
In Montreal, the main venue for the 1976 Summer Games, Olympic Stadium, was affectionately referred to as "The Big O." That structure is today known as "The Big Owe," for the money that was, and continues to be, poured into it.
The Big Owe took 30 years to pay off. A third new roof for the venue is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A recent CBC documentary on the now 45-year-old structure was titled, "The Big Woe.”
It is one of many "white elephant" stadiums left to taxpayers and governments around the world to handle in the wake of mega events like World Cups and the Olympics. They are venues that are now rarely used, or they play home to a paltry number of fans for second-tier sports clubs. Brazil and South Africa have been particularly stung.
A world-class stadium is a grand and spectacular structure meant to inspire awe, welcome fans and provide a venue for competition or entertainment. It is most definitely not meant to stand idle for huge swaths of time, sucking taxpayer money for upkeep while growing older, uglier and often, into a massively expensive eyesore.
Enter Stadium 974
Named for the country dialing code for 2022 FIFA World Cup host Qatar, and for the number of repurposed ocean shipping containers used to erect it, Qatar has touted Stadium 974 as groundbreaking for mega event sustainability.
Leaving aside for the moment the much-discussed concerns over human rights abuses against migrant construction workers in Qatar, the new stadium is said to be built mainly from recycled or recyclable materials and will be taken down and moved after the 2022 World Cup ends next December, when the stadium is no longer needed.
"If you look at all the criticism for all of the big stadiums created around the world — and nobody uses them later on — this is, well, it's useful," said Zeina Khalil Hajj, a leading campaigner and Middle East-focused organizer for 350, a global organization focused on the climate crisis.
Qatar World Cup set to be one of most controversial
Stadium 974 will be one of eight World Cup stadiums hosting 32 national teams in a total of 64 matches between opening day on November 21 and the championship final on December 18, 2022.
While activist Hajj said Qatar's Stadium 974 deserves some merit for the manner in which it can potentially be taken apart and rebuilt, she also called it a clever public relations move for a country that stands out as the biggest per capita emitter of CO2 per person on the planet.
"It doesn't mean they are the biggest culprit in the world. It just means that they have a duty. They have a role," Hajj told DW. "They have a responsibility as a rich nation. They have to contribute. And that means they have to change their domestic consumption pattern.
"What they're doing instead is all this 'PR machine.'"
Bodour Al-Meer, head of sustainability for Qatar's local organizing committee, said the country is seeking to balance growth and the environment.
"Qatar is a small and rapidly developing country and hosting the World Cup has accelerated our national development plans," she said, speaking for the Qatar organizing group, known as the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, at a recent virtual conference on "regenerative sporting events."
"Our vision for our country is to have harmony between economic growth, social development and environmental protections," she said. "The environmental section of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Sustainability Strategy is perfectly aligned with our national goals."
Qatar's Supreme Committee, in line with global event organizers FIFA, has said the 2022 World Cup will ultimately be a carbon-neutral event.
Its sustainability strategy document focuses on mitigation of emissions, energy efficient stadiums, low transportation costs — in part because all of the stadiums are in such close proximity of central Doha — and sustainable waste management practices. Moreover, the document said the "remaining unavoidable emissions will be offset."
Sustainability, or 'greenwashing'?
All laudable goals, said Philipp Sommer, director of circular economy for Environmental Action Germany, known within Germany as Umwelthilfe. But he said offsetting "unavoidable emissions" by planting a million trees, as Qatar has pledged, rather than using solar power or wind energy to cool seven of the eight stadiums (Portside Stadium 974 will not be cooled), and provide their electricity, is not what he'd call sustainable.
"It's kind of like greenwashing to just compensate," said Sommer in a DW interview.
Already, the 2022 World Cup has been pushed back in the calendar by five months to avoid scorching summer heat. But Qatar is still expected to use fossil-fuel powered air conditioning in the open-air stadiums next November and December, just as it does in outdoor shopping malls, markets and along busy sidewalks.
"What they should do is to go fully on renewable energies. So all the electricity and all the heating and cooling should work on renewable energy," said Sommer. "And if they build new energy facilities for that, then they of course can be used long-term for the population there."
'A missed opportunity'
Sommer believes at a time when climate change issues are front and center, there continues to be a misguided rush for host countries to build gleaming new structures for mega events like the World Cup and the Olympics. Even if a 2022 World Cup stadium, one of eight in a single city, can be taken apart and rebuilt elsewhere.
"I would first ask the question if it's really necessary to build a stadium for only one purpose," Sommer said.
"So they already plan to to take it apart afterwards … But can the games not be played at already-existing stadiums? To build a new stadium just for this event and to already plan that it will not be used again because you don't need it anymore, yeah, it's not a really sustainable thing."
But looking further afield, Qatari engineer Bodour Al-Meer of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy insists her country is on the road to sustainability. "We have detailed legacy plans for each new building we construct, including our stadiums," she said. "I think the legacy strategy for a host nation for mega events is going to become even more important in the future as a result of Qatar 2022."
But environmentalist Zeina Khalil Hajj has her doubts about one of the dirtiest nations on the planet, which is preparing to host upwards of a million World Cup visitors.
"Are are they changing the narrative in the country and really embedding a sustainable way of a lifetime?" she asked. "No. Can they afford to do that? Yes."